The last maestro standing

SINGAPORE - Mr Yeo How Jiang has spent the last seven decades playing, teaching and trying to keep alive a music form that has all but died out in Singapore and the rest of the world.

The 85-year-old is believed to be the last living master of Waijiang music - a pre-Cultural Revolution Chinese style - in Asia, and possibly the world.

The art form had its heyday in Singapore from the 1930s to the 1950s, when several thousand people would gather for a Waijiang concert.

Attendance fell sharply in the 1970s, and today, the music is performed only by Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association once or twice a year.

The group also performs Teochew opera and Teochew music, and usually includes some Waijiang music in its performance when it is invited to perform at arts venues and community events.

Music academic Joe Peters says that Waijiang music "seems to be the source much of the Southern Chinese opera and music forms have grown from".

"There is still not enough co-ordinated research to map the historical flow of traditional music in China and from China into the diaspora at the moment.

"So there will be many different views on what it is or should be," says Dr Peters.

Based on his research, he believes Waijiang music and opera "flowed out of Southern China and into Nanyang and other places such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong".

He says he discovered Mr Yeo's "exceptional skill" while doing research for a paper he submitted to the International Council for Traditional Music a few months ago. "He is able to remember the old Waijiang music that was brought and performed in Singapore many decades ago."

Born in the Guangdong province of China in 1929, Mr Yeo moved to Singapore with his parents in 1938.

He began playing Waijiang music at 11, and his father, one of the founding members of the Thau Yong association, would take him to performances and practices at the association's premises.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the orchestra would give free performances at large venues, from concert halls such as the Victoria Theatre to amusement parks. More than 1,000 people attended the concerts, recalls Mr Yeo.

By the 1970s, though, their concerts drew just a handful of people. One year in the late 1970s, the group was in the middle of a performance at Victoria Theatre when they lost electricity for 45 minutes.

When the lights came on, the performers were poised and ready to continue - but the audience had all left.

The incident left many members of the troupe demoralised, and signalled the decline of the form's popularity.

Even in China, the music form has evolved, says Ms Javier Lee, deputy honorary secretary of Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association.

"Troupes that originally played Waijiang music now play something else," says the 33-year-old who runs a computer repair business and has conducted extensive research on the subject out of passion.

"The sound is completely different. It is called Guangdong han yue and musicians no longer use the instrument yueqin, which used to be a leading instrument for Waijiang music."

According to her, Thau Yong is the only orchestra left playing this music.

"Until now, I still have not found another group in Singapore or in Asia playing this," she says.

"The group is like a time capsule and has kept the music as close to its original form as possible."

She explains that the cultural revolution in China had a big impact on all art forms, causing many changes in instruments, singing techniques and styles of music.

Ms Lee adds that the association had nominated Mr Yeo for a Cultural Medallion a few years ago, but its application was rejected. The National Arts Council declined to comment as it is not its practice to share who has been nominated for the award.

Dr Peters agrees that "it is also been universally acknowledged, particularly in Chao opera, that much of Waijiang was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution".

Mr Yeo has taught more than 500 students since he began in 1959, with his latest student coming to him just a few weeks ago. He says he teaches for free because he is constantly discovering new things about the music and the instruments, which are the same used in traditional Chinese music.

"Even at my age, I don't feel I know enough about the music," he says.

When asked why the music declined in popularity, he thinks for a while and answers simply that it is quite difficult to play, and that the singing pitch for its opera is quite high.

"Many people become interested in newer types of music, and when they face difficulty in playing or singing Waijiang, they would rather adopt a new style than persevere," he says.

He does not plan to retire, but to teach and play until the day he dies. With an ever declining audience, few students and even fewer keen on teaching, he knows that there is a possibility the music may die with him.

The thought is one he is resigned to, he says. "There's no choice," he says. "I feel it's a shame, but I'm helpless to prevent it." Many students start to learn and just stop turning up. Since the lessons are free, there is no incentive to stay and complete the course, he acknowledges.

A ray of hope appeared recently in the form of 12-year-old Ang Wee Keat, who joined the association after becoming interested in Teochew opera music. While he is currently interested in acting and singing in operas, he thinks he might want to learn Waijiang in the future.

He is most interested in the yueqin, an instrument unique to Waijiang music. The Nan Chiau Primary School student says: "I like it because it is so different and it looks quite cute."

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